When Panama Came to Brooklyn

When Panama Came to Brooklyn


On April 20, 1963, Las Servidoras, a Brooklyn-based scholarship-granting organization created by Afro-Caribbean Panamanian women who migrated to New York starting in the late 1940s, celebrated their tenth anniversary. As part of the celebration, the organization invited longtime educational leader and former teacher and principal in the Canal Zone colored schools Leonor Jump Watson as their guest speaker. Jump Watson praised the organization for their “understanding of a noble concept of leadership—that of opportunity for service.” She also congratulated the entire membership for using “their resources of intelligence, effort and magnanimity to help young men and women acquire higher education.” In addition to inviting Jump Watson as a speaker, the Las Servidoras membership used the occasion of their anniversary to become lifelong members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The event, as a whole, spoke to the Black diasporic networks that throughout the twentieth century connected spaces like New York with the Panamanian isthmus.

Through its organizational and memory-keeping work, Las Servidoras embarked on a project of defining Panama that countered the nation-state-specific, homogenously linguistic, and supposedly raceless articulations of ser panameño. The women and work of Las Servidoras, I argue, served as reminders that claiming Panama, especially when understood as a diasporic process, was about not just geography but the idea of a continuous becoming and a purposeful claiming. Being outside the isthmus, with both inherited and bourgeoning questions about citizenship and belonging, fostered a unique opportunity to revisit the idea and practice of defining Panama and creating new vocabularies for the multiple spaces Afro-Caribbean Panamanians had, could, and would call home.

New York City offered many parallels to Panama. Both had rich Black migrant populations, an inclusionist discourse alongside entrenched segregation, and unequal educational opportunities that undermined students of color. The two settings provide a unique opportunity to further explore Afro-Caribbean diasporic world-making at both a micro and a hemispheric level.

 

Afro-Caribbean Panamanians in New York

Sarah Anesta Pond Samuel, better known as Anesta Samuel to her contemporaries, made her first trip to New York in 1940. She enrolled in the La Robert’s Beauty School and resided with relatives in Brooklyn. After her graduation in 1941, she returned to Panama. Samuel was then twenty-three years old, a married woman, and the mother of a three-year old son. These circumstances, and her status as a mother, made Samuel a rather atypical foreign student in New York. Yet, given the social expectations and economic constraints of her time, being married and having a husband with steady employment in the Canal Zone made acquiring a visa and financing her beauty school courses possible. Another factor made Samuel’s New York stay significant—she culminated her studies in New York a week following the passage of a new constitution in Panama that denationalized all those with foreign-born parents belonging to “prohibited races.”

The 1941 Constitution made acquiring citizenship nearly impossible for Black people with parents from the non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Samuel was born in Panama City, but both her parents had been born in Montserrat. Her husband, also born in Panama City, had parents from Barbados and Antigua. As a result of the 1941 Constitution, both Samuel and her husband became ineligible for Panamanian citizenship (and by extension, passports). By 1946, a new constitution had removed explicit racial exclusions to citizenship but still required all individuals with foreign-born parents to petition for their citizenship. Samuel, and those who like her had traveled before 1941, temporarily avoided the brunt of these changes. Those traveling after 1941, including Samuel and the future members of Las Servidoras, did so entangled by the citizenship and exclusion debates of the time. By choosing to travel overseas, Samuel and her peers, especially those with Canal Zone connections, risked being dubbed selfish and unpatriotic.

Afro-Caribbean Panamanian travel to New York and other parts of the United States nevertheless continued into the 1940s and early 1950s. According to US immigration statistics, from mid-1946 to mid-1949, more than ten thousand non-US citizens departed from Panama (including the Canal Zone) for the United States. One such traveler was Ann Rose Mulcare, an eventual Las Servidoras member. In July 1946 Mulcare boarded the ss Acadia in Balboa, Canal Zone, with New York City as her destination. In her passenger manifest, Mulcare indicated her place of birth as Gorgona, La Boca City, Panama; her citizenship as Panamanian; and her last place of residence as Panama City. She also listed her race as “Negro,” denoted English and Spanish as her spoken languages, and dressmaker as her profession.

New York City and Panama provide a unique opportunity to further explore Afro-Caribbean diasporic world making at both a micro and a hemispheric level.

At the time of her move to New York, Mulcare was fifty-four years old. Securing employment at that age was likely difficult, though as a seamstress she had more flexible employment options. Mulcare was also the widow of a reverend in La Boca (John Talbert Mulcare) and may have secured financial assistance from US-based members of her church community. Mulcare had her daughters in mind when she chose to migrate. Ann Rose (her namesake) and Louisa made the journey to New York with her and celebrated their twentieth and eighteenth birthdays in 1946. Both had been trained as typists. Finding employment in New York as bilingual typists—both Ann Rose and Louisa also declared English and Spanish as their languages—likely offered more stable options than the seamstress business.

The Mulcares’ travel to New York fit a pattern that would become more pronounced among Afro-Caribbean Panamanians by the 1950s. Many chose to make Brooklyn their new residence. Before this, in the immediate post– canal construction period, migration from Panama to Harlem was the norm. In Harlem migrants like Maida Springer, Kenneth B. Clark, and Guyanese-born and Panama-raised Eric Walrond made their international careers in labor organizing, psychology and social service, literature, and civic organizing. By the early 1940s some Panamanians already lived in Brooklyn, among them Anesta Samuel’s relatives and successful entrepreneurs such as Ethelbert Anderson, a neighborhood association developer. The bulk of the women who formed and joined Las Servidoras in the 1950s were all Brooklyn residents.

Why then did Brooklyn become a communal space for Las Servidoras and other Afro-Caribbean Panamanians? One answer lay in the growth of Brooklyn as a Black urban center by the 1940s. Black southerners, Black migrants from outside the United States, and Black people born in New York formed part of this urban community. The completion of subway lines connecting central Brooklyn to Manhattan in the late 1930s facilitated this demographic trend. Prior to these subway lines, most people of African descent in New York chose to live in Manhattan, mostly in Harlem. With eased commuter options, Brooklyn became a borough of interest. By 1940 Brooklyn also offered cheaper rents and more home ownership opportunities than Harlem or Manhattan as a whole. For the founders and the future members of Las Servidoras, home ownership was especially important. By law, no one in the Canal Zone could own property since all land came under the purview of the US government. In Panamá and Colón, rampant overcrowding made the possibility of owning a home very difficult. Those seeking home ownership also had to find a way to finance and build their residences.

The presence of other Black migrants from throughout the Caribbean increased the appeal of Brooklyn for Afro-Caribbean Panamanians. Many of these new residents came from the Anglophone Caribbean, especially Barbados and Jamaica, in addition to Puerto Rico and Haiti. Although most Panamanian migrants of the 1940s had never lived in the Anglophone Caribbean, some had attended school there and, even for those who had not, the culture of the region informed their identity. Puerto Ricans, like Afro-Caribbean Panamanians, had familiarity with US imperial governance. Although the majority of Puerto Ricans who moved to New York starting in the early twentieth century settled in Manhattan, a portion, by the 1940s and 1950s, made their way to Brooklyn and joined the US-born and migrant Black populations of the borough.

By the mid-1940s, some Black New Yorkers had secured elected office in Brooklyn, and a plethora of race-specific associations (both local and national) addressed the civic, communal, and legal needs of the borough’s residents. Afro-Caribbean migrants also operated their own associations at this time. In terms of leadership potential and entrepreneurship, 1940s Brooklyn held key similarities with Colón. Here too a handful of Black people held municipal offices, and civic associations served Black migrants and their descendants. Rampant racial segregation posed a challenge to Black migrants in Brooklyn. By the 1940s, banks, landlords, and insurance companies had mapped Brooklyn into desirable (South Brooklyn) and undesirable (North Brooklyn) areas. A high number of residents of color effectively sealed a neighborhood’s fate with these designations. This racial mapping of Brooklyn coincided with loan practices. As a result, white residents secured home loans in South Brooklyn and surrounding suburbs, whereas African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Afro-Caribbean migrants were limited to home ownership and rentals in North Brooklyn and parts of Central Brooklyn. Such segregationist practices mirrored those in the Canal Zone, though there, segregation was established by a canal commission and upheld via appointed zone governors from the 1910s into the 1960s. In Brooklyn, de facto segregation existed alongside a political and legislative discourse of liberalism and integration.

Despite labels of “undesirability,” people of color made their way to North and Central Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Others also pushed against these boundaries. Among these people of color were Afro-Caribbean Panamanians. For those who had lived through Canal Zone apartheid, Brooklyn segregation probably came as no surprise. Notably, New York segregation also operated at the corporate and jurisdictional levels. Segregation made profits for some, while it punished others. People of color scrambled for the same homes in older areas. White residents, in turn, like their Canal Zone counterparts, secured access to newer neighborhoods with amply funded schools and other community services. This pattern of racial districting also had strong parallels in Panama, as seen in New Cristóbal and El Chorrillo. Afro-Caribbean Panamanians navigating through Brooklyn were familiar with segregation practices orchestrated by both governmental and private agents.

For Afro-Caribbean Panamanians making homes in areas deemed “undesirable” and “unprofitable” by corporate and municipal authorities, a good neighborhood did not require white residents. Such areas needed only to offer a better quality of life and more abundant opportunities than previous residencies. The Afro-Caribbean Panamanians choosing to reside in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s were especially prepared to take advantage of these opportunities. Like other Afro-Caribbean migrants, many had some level of education, had worked for years in their places of birth, and had some savings. They often sought out a small network of relatives or friends who had migrated before them. Relocation to Brooklyn was not just about the racial politics of the time but also about the ways in which Afro-Caribbean Panamanians could make this space their own. As migrants, they brought histories of previous homes and connected them to the racial and ethnic politics of New York. They were, therefore, familiar with diaspora (as Afro-Caribbeans), migrants who understood national politics (as Panamanians), and self-defined Black women and men ready to engage in hemispheric conversations about race.

In highlighting the work and intelligence of women, Las Servidoras/The Dedicators challenged longstanding masculinist frameworks of community activism and diasporic world making.

The 1952 birthday/welcome home party for an Afro-Caribbean Panamanian couple, featured in the Amsterdam News, offered one example of these intertwined histories and identities in Brooklyn. According to the coverage of the party, approximately sixty friends of Mr. and Mrs. George Campbell congregated at the couple’s Brooklyn brownstone to “stage a typical Panamanian fiesta” in honor of their joint birthdays and their return from vacation. The fiesta included tamborito dances and the wearing of folkloric costumes like the pollera and the montuno. By the mid-1950s, poets, writers, and scholars of folklore on the isthmus promoted these practices as emblems of an authentic mestizo and raceless Panamanian nation—practices that differentiated true Panamanians from the interior from more questionable elements in Panamá and Colón. At this Brooklyn party, however, rather than emblems of a static Panamanian identity, the dances and customs became the domain of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians. Their bodies, their mobility, and their ability to gather a wide array of other Black men and women challenged the fixity of notions like ser panameño. Afro-Caribbean Panamanians could, as they danced the tamborito, speak in English and Spanish, share stories about their friends and family back on the isthmus, and discuss New York City politics. The party guests, with English, Spanish, and bilingual first names and a plethora of English last names, along with a sprinkling of Spanish and French last names, represented a culturally diverse Black community brought together by Afro-Caribbean Panamanians and the tides of transnational migration.

The party also pointed to the unique position of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians within a culturally diverse Brooklyn. To be Panamanian in Brooklyn blurred the distinctions among Latinx, African American, Latin American, and Caribbean identities. The multidiasporic Blackness that Afro-Caribbean Panamanians encompassed remained outside any defined racial or ethnic category in early 1950s New York. Certainly, some New Yorkers already understood that Caribbean migrants brought with them additional perspectives on Blackness and culture. But fully understanding Afro-Caribbean Panamanians required addressing the layered history they embodied. These layers included hemispheric citizenship debates, multiple migrations, and a direct experience of US neocolonialism.

 

Panama in New York, New York in Panama

By 1971 a branch of Las Servidoras began operating in Panama and, along with its parent branch in Brooklyn, adopted a new name—The Dedicators, Inc. The change, as explained by past members of the organization, coincided with seeking a name that would make the group more accessible within the New York City area. Just as this name change went into effect, the group had an opportunity to expands its reach to Panama. A group of women and men there, including former New York residents who were inspired by the work of Las Servidoras/The Dedicators, requested permission to establish a new branch of the organization. Black students would remain the focus, centering on the needs of students in Panama. Unlike the Brooklyn-based group, men would also serve in elected positions. By 1974 the Panama branch counted eleven members and offered two scholarships that year to Panama City–based students, bringing the total distributed by the Dedicators to fourteen.

Las Servidoras/The Dedicators thrived as an organization after its humble Brooklyn beginnings. Its history allows for a richer understanding of diaspora making by Afro-Caribbean Panamanians. A Brooklyn brownstone became the base for Las Servidoras, and the city as a whole became transformed by the luncheons, dinner-dances, cotillions, and scholarship awards coordinated by the organization. Their events brought together a multilingual and multidiasporic Black New York but also revealed generational differences. These differences, like those back on the isthmus, posed questions about self and community, identity, progress, and belonging. The work of Las Servidoras contended with gender inequities as they pertained to recognition, opportunities, and leadership platforms in Panama and the United States. Women were active agents on the isthmus and used venues like newspapers, school rooms, beauty shops, churches, radio stations, and small independent businesses to share their opinions about the present and their visions for the future. This backdrop of action allowed for the emergence of Las Servidoras rooted in the belief that women had the capacity to organize and to serve a wider community. The honoring of mostly men for some time typified the actions of the group, but with each event, a realization that Black women in Panama, New York, and the Caribbean shared points of commonality emerged. That few Afro-Caribbean women had ever been recognized for their work, and that young women continued to seek avenues for educational advancement, also registered into these events and scholarship decisions.

Issues of class and propriety never disappeared from the equation. But in highlighting the work and intelligence of women, Las Servidoras/The Dedicators challenged longstanding masculinist frameworks of community activism and diasporic world making.

 

Excerpted from Kaysha Corinealdi’s Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century. © Duke University Press, 2022. icon

Featured image: Detail of New York City cityscape with Brooklyn Bridge general view (1933–1952). Photograph by F. S.
Lincoln. Courtesy of Pennsylvania State University Special Collections Library / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)



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